Getting High… With a Little Help From Our Friends

December 5th, 2012

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In the late 1960s, the Soviet Union designed and built innovative rocket engines for its massive “N-1″ Moon rocket. These “NK-33″ engines were based on a radical new design and on advanced metallurgy that is cutting-edge, even today. But the NK-33s never flew.

After America won the Space Race, Soviet leaders ordered the NK-33s and all other traces of their Moon program to be destroyed. Instead, Soviet rocket scientists ignored their Moscow masters and squirreled away over 100 of their prized NK-33s. After the Soviet Union fell, an American company confirmed rumors about this invaluable rocket cache and eventually bought three dozen, along with U.S. manufacturing rights. Now — some four decades after they were built — two NK-33s are poised to leap from the pages of history and power a new rocket into space.

The new rocket is “Antares” — America’s latest commercial rocket. Designed, developed and launched by Virginia-based Orbital Sciences, Antares will provide the United States with a powerful new launcher for delivering cargo to the International Space Station. Antares is set to lift off on its maiden flight later this year from a pad on the Virginia coast.

The Antares backstory reads like a spy novel. Its main engines are Soviet-made, American-modified NK-33s. Antares’ first stage also includes fuel tanks built by a Ukrainian rocket producer that once made Soviet ICBMs targeted on New York and Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Antares’ second stage incorporates a solid fueled rocket motor built by a top U.S. supplier-and derived from the “Peacekeeper” missiles once pointed at Moscow and Vladivostok. With this fascinating heritage, both Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong should be smiling when Antares joins them in the great beyond.

Antares also strikingly illustrates a key economic issue: how global supply chains enable pioneering American companies to bring innovative products to the world. In building Antares, Orbital’s thousands of American employees collaborated with space industry partners from around the globe, and they’ve shown ingenuity and skill in making disparate global components work in harmony with Orbital’s own extensive systems and hardware.

But the builders of Antares are not alone. Many American producers and workers are similarly adept at using global supply networks to build innovative products that support American economic growth and good jobs.

Millions of Americans carry a pocket-sized launcher — an Apple iPhone that can launch thousands of mobile apps. The iPhone is “assembled in China.” But it is also the product of cutting-edge American design and software, and incorporates hardware sourced from around the world, including a powerful chip produced in Texas. And this globally-sourced product drives U.S. economic growth. The chief economist for a major U.S investment house recently speculated that the new iPhone 5 could — by itself — make a measurable contribution to America’s GDP growth.

Over half of U.S. imports are intermediate goods — the kind used by American workers to manufacture a wide array of new products. Countless American manufacturing plants, including U.S. chemical and auto producers, obtain vital inputs and sub-assemblies from global supply chains. At the same time, many U.S. manufacturers and farmers benefit by being part of the supply networks of foreign-based producers. And globally sourced goods support U.S. economic growth and millions of American jobs in logistics, retail and other service sectors.

But international supply networks can also raise concerns. American exporters and workers can be shut out of global supply chains by foreign governments that use trade barriers to impede U.S. exports. Over-reliance on foreign suppliers also has the potential to erode U.S. competitiveness in key sectors. And, while foreign suppliers are increasingly responsible, some still don’t comport with important American values on protecting workers and the environment.

As global supply chains play an ever-growing role in the U.S. economy, U.S. policymakers must act to assure that supply chains maximize benefits for America and Americans.

For example, our policymakers must finally abandon the widely discredited notion that imports are always “bad” for the American economy. They should focus on better assuring that globally sourced goods are produced in a socially responsible manner, and look to supplement current trade data (which counts an iPhone assembled with $10 worth of Chinese labor as 100 percent Chinese) to more accurately capture the true value of global trade flows. And, perhaps most importantly, America’s policymakers should pursue trade initiatives to streamline global supply chains and help large and small American producers capture a greater share of increasingly globalized production.

The Antares launcher will be capable of lifting over five tons into Earth orbit, while also providing a powerful illustration of how America’s companies and workers can benefit from global supply networks. (Interestingly, Antares’ initial cargo will include small satellites built by NASA from globally sourced smartphones.) But Antares should also remind us that, when it comes to America’s role in the connected global economy, we also need to act on some weighty issues here on Earth.

This post was originally published in The Huffington Post.